Game Design Overview
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on game design. Currently there isn’t any eye candy or the like, it’s purely mind food for those interested in the subject. This is also the debut post for our new author S-Priest, a veteran modder on many titles such as Hexen, Heretic, Neverwinter Nights & Descent 3
Game design is always a subject of dispute. Folks, as an example, tend to argue and bicker a lot about game balance, until a point at which a game developer goes and “balances” the game to such an extent, everything’s really much the same no matter what class or weapon you choose. Only models and sounds might differ, and object properties.
Somehow everything tends to stagnate when left on its own and detached from the essential nature of things.
So what exactly is a game? A game is a natural way of learning for humans, that’s what it is. The thrill of a game consists in perfecting one’s skills and learning how to deal with threats, different kinds of situations, and of course, experiencing a fancy world that tickles one’s interest.
Game Design Aspects
Broken down, the essences of a good game are:
This is quite simple, but simple does not equal easy to implement. What’s the thrill of a game of tag in childhood? Running and evading and finally getting to tag someone else? Not quite. But the spirit of the game is there. Now try implementing that in a game. Can someone, off-hand, make a thrilling computer game of tag? If he does, he’ll only be successful if he manages to transplant some of the real-world game’s spirit and thrill and ambiance.
The point of a game of tag though, other than improving coordination and training leg muscles, is sports, outperforming others, risk, and chance. Sports (improving one’s own performance), risk, and chance are all ingredients of gameplay. Violent games simply add a thrill by adding the chance of death into the pot. So gameplay is really the interaction of humans with these influences/essences of a game, and ultimately the thrill of a game is the interaction with one’s own abilities and their improvement (which again, is a quality of sports). Achieving goals in a game is part of this, as the saying went often it’s not the result, but the journey that matters. Hence it makes sense making the journey as satisfying (and subtly challenging) as possible.
2. Ambience/World Interaction.
This is, again, simple, but difficult to implement. Details and interactive details make a game’s world. Reflective, splashing water that can be dived into to the point of hitting underwater sand. Breakable and rolling objects – a stone that might roll down a hill or slope, say. Believable NPCs and even birds flying in the air – all that might be in a real world must be in a game’s world, to the extent it makes sense and can be implemented. Sound effects also belong here – eerie sound effects playing elsewhere relative to the player’s position don’t require visible objects to be made, by the way.
The main goal to achieve here though is stuff like rotating doors, grass reacting to wind, etc. And, of course, interactive objects. Alchemy ingredients, merchant cargo for space or land transport, all of that has to be pickable, examinable, and overall believable, as a game’s world must be so believable as to make the player almost live in it.
This often is the part that upsets game designers who think everything must be simple and easy. Not at all, as only idiots will be attracted by an easy and simple game. And then they’ll get bored of it, as it won’t teach them anything.
A game must be challenging and believable and it must reveal itself gradually, as a mystery of sorts. These qualities make a game irresistible – the player will want to find out what happens next and how a certain aspect of the game’s world reacts or a quest unfolds, all while gaining experience and learning/developing skills (not just in in-game character’s terms). One of the chief thrills of a game is the player’s ability to learn. Forsake the complexity that teases and rewards a player’s curiosity and learning and creativity, and there’s not much of an attraction to a game. Alchemy, trade, natural world systems/ecologies, player classes, different vehicles, magical items, inventory and medical/weapon care, logistics and weapon supplies are examples of attractive complexity. When there is a certain amount of shells and missiles available for loading onto a fighter plane at an airbase, accuracy becomes a necessity and it must be trained.
Mastering a magical system, as an example, might give a player an advantage in deathmatch. This complexity is an advantage of Hexen II over Quake II, which does not have a system of magical artifacts.
Complexity also matters in aspects of simulation. A good vehicle combat simulator (tank, ship, or airplane, say) will also have complex models of said vehicles’ behaviour, physical and interactive. It doesn’t have to boggle the player down with details such as how to reassemble an assault rifle and clean it in the conditions of a desert, but a game is made by how convincingly lifelike it is, and in terms of computer simulation/game design realism is achieved by a certain complexity, “life is in details” as the saying goes. Spellcasting schools and different spell effects, IR missiles that can lock without radar engaged, stealth considerations, weapon or item behaviour quirks, etc.
This is the part that is hardest to grasp for many common designers. A game that is fully “fair” is dull. Balancing the blue team so it is equal in power to the black team will make it utterly dull. On the contrary, a game that is addictive and thrilling will have a variety of properties. Make the blue team have its own abilities and skills, totally different from those of a black and a white team.
As a simple example, the main improvement of Hexen over Doom was player classes (also inventory rather than silly one-use pickups). Each with specialised weapons, each unlike another. They were just the same old fighter, cleric, mage, the mage being rather squishy and the fighter too melee-oriented for a Doom-style shooter player, but there they were, each character class had its constitution, magical abilities, and weapons. In an example out of the real world, a fighter plane or a main battle tank is never equal to another country/manufacturer’s MBT or fighter. They’re not “balanced” as such. There are too many variables.
For example, Italian Centaur IFVs are good for fighting in North Africa, but they freeze to non-starting death in Muscovite winter. Russian IFVs are designed to different criteria than Italian IFVs, and hence they’ll behave in quite different ways. In neutral terrain, given they suffer no technical accidents, a Centaur might have some agility advantages over a BRDM on a road or plain surface, but a BRDM will have better armament and all-terrain traversion, allowing it to be more effective on a mud or in a forest, say. And in that there is a lot of gameplay, e. g. a skilled Centaur player trying to lure a BRDM into town or BRDM trying to lure a Centaur off-road. To give another, classic example, an F-4 might have a better endurance and carry more armament, but a MiG-21 is more agile and has a better thrust:weight ratio (“supersonic sports plane”). So combat tactics for an F-4 (heavy but fast) against a MiG-21 will be quite different to MiG-21 (agile dogfighter) against an F-4. The key here is to have as much variety as life itself; there is a lot of gameplay in realistic combat, to quote a DID designer comparing their realistic F-22 ADF flight sim against Novalogic’s “arcade” F-22 Lightning II.
There must always be details which will make a character class better at something than another character class, and these differences must not be subtle. E. g. a heavy and heavily armed/armoured vehicle will of course be a lot more inertial and much less agile than a lightweight and lightly armed/armoured vehicle, but there could be more differences such as acceleration, banking speed, armament types, etc.
In short, making different, realistic characters for different classes by taking into account their roles and making factions/teams as different as their backgrounds will make them attractive and interesting to play. Variety also includes game-world variety, of course. Different types of ambience, perhaps different cultural styles, areas, etc. Different conditions. The more varied the game’s world, the better; the ideal game is the one in which new properties are being constantly added to the game’s engine and world.
5. Music and Sound Effects.
Music and sound effects can make or break a game. There are many approaches here, such as situation/conditional music, varying pitch and attenuation and timing for sound effects making them appear more varied, etc. Music itself is a complex topic, but really a proper, beautiful soundtrack ought to suck into a game and make the player want to stay inside the game.
Immersiveness used to be a buzzword. In some ways though it’s always down to art and artistic talent, as an artist who’s used to observing what life is like will always do better creating an immersive game than someone who doesn’t have a lot of interest in how the world itself is. This translates easily into a game as really the talent of famous game developers might be infusing a game with an attractive, lively spirit, much like a painter or a musician has to infuse some spirit into whichever work of art he’d create, Mystery, a complex magic system, the thrill of the unknown and the thrill of challenging combat as an example are all blended with the attraction of a beautiful, interactive world in many a successful RPG. But all of them must be part of a system vision of the world, and really system (and systematic) design of a world’s life and its rituals is what successful game design is about, as well as the game developer being in touch with the spirit of playing. So in some way having a fresh and wise look at things is a professional requirement, as is system thought and not getting dulled down and not becoming a lifeless judgmentalist type.
Realism itself is a bit tricky. As an example, someone has sent images of an ice elemental for a game – for some constructive criticism presumably. Well the main critic about said elemental is, it looks too much like a human dude in ice armour. A real ice elemental wouldn’t be looking like a human being (that is an example of a vicious lack of imagination). It doesn’t have to. Think a bit of what an ice elemental is. It is part of a mass of ice with a will of its own. So it might just be an ice cloud, a whirlwind of snow and ice particles, engulfing and freezing anything in its path, making it part of its own greater dominion. A game monster like that would only be affected by fire and heat – no silly firearms shattering it. It might look very vaguely like a large, quilt-covered humanoid, though still being a cloud of ice and snow and chilly air. There is a lot more gameplay (and thrill) in a concept of such a realistic ice elemental, rather than a simple ice-coated human doll. Encountering such an ice-cloud elemental in a game, it trying to engulf and freeze the player, with icey wind blowing around it, would send shivers down the spine, rather than seeing yet another humanoid type.
There are more issues such as strategy and tactics, but these are more specialised, whereas nowadays the main problem is game designers not making a game too lively. Part of this has to do with the cheap attempt to appeal to anyone. That is vicious, bringing down a game’s challenge level to next to nothing is almost as bad as making it so hard as next to unplayable. Strategy and tactics and overall game flow are interesting topics, but the next article will be about something else entirely.
Continue to part 2: Balance in Game Design
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